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Town Without Grafitti (2004)

(I wrote this for the in-flight magazine Baltic Outlook rather quickly, because I wasn’t sure how long it would be true. )

I really didn’t want to write about this. We superstitious Latvians sometimes believe that calling attention to a good thing puts a curse on it.  But sooner or later someone else will notice and the cat will scurry out of the bag anyway. So here goes. Don’t tell anyone, but Riga, Latvia may be one of the most graffiti-less towns in Europe. Maybe even the world.

Our tourism people boast that Riga has one of the largest collections of Art Nouveau buildings in Europe, which is probably true and notably worthy. But I think Riga is even more notable for being the European city with the largest number of  buildings – public and private –  totally untouched by the disfiguring spray of unwanted paint.

We don’t know how this has happened and many here would be content to leave sleeping dogs and unscathed buildings lie. But it clearly indicates something extraordinary about the culture of this city and those who inhabit it. We just don’t know what it is.

After all, street artists are the curse of architects and the blight of city planners the world over. Apart from a  few tightly monitored dictatorships, hardly a city in the world has escaped the creative wrath of urchin urban Picassos armed with paint blasters. While some graffiti does sprout up (briefly) in police states, it seems to thrive best in democratic ones. The fall of the Berlin Wall not only brought free markets and real political parties back to Central and Eastern Europe, it also unleashed a mob of graffiti artists across the newly liberated urban landscape.

Everywhere it seems, except in Riga.  Not that we don’t have any at all. It’s just that here, the alley artists are very picky.

In most cities, graffiti artists descend upon a building façade like a swarm of wasps. They cover it with a sea of signs and symbols, filling any spare space with everything imaginable. They seem to care less about making an impression than simply making their mark. When they run out of bare spaces, they start a new layer over the old one.

In Riga, graffiti artists pretty much stay away from buildings altogether. Especially if they are inhabited. And particularly in Riga’s UNESCO-honoured Old Town, and in the remarkable Art Nouveau boulevard neighbourhoods that surround it. In fact, almost all Riga buildings are treated with equal vandalistic disinterest .Government buildings, apartment buildings, stores, offices, newsstands or flower kiosks. Even the dismally grey and monotonous Soviet-era apartment blocks are largely untouched. Apart from a few sporadic exceptions, Riga spray painters don’t do buildings.

If they do want to express themselves, they stick to bridges, railroad viaducts, abandoned warehouses, utility boxes or a trash bin.

In Riga, graffiti has its place and everyone, including the spray painters themselves, seems to respect this. For example, richly Hanseatic Riga just celebrated it’s 800th birthday and yet has one of the newest looking Old Towns in Europe because almost all of its buildings have been freshly renovated and painted within the last ten years. Independence from the dreary Soviets came in 1991, and Rigans have been sprucing up their city with an enthusiastic vengeance ever since. Rapid privatisation and a fast and furious arrival of direct foreign investment also helped the city’s historic buildings quickly restore their former charm and glamour.  Nearly none have been touched by ‘the spray’ because almost all Old Town graffiti (as if following an unwritten law) seems to gravitate to one very narrow, two-block long alleyway that connects the Dom and City Hall Squares. If you blink, you’ll miss it.

Riga street artists seem to know their place. Or maybe they just like to see their work last a little longer. Latvians love art and architecture together, but only when it’s planned, not added on as an anarchistic afterthought. They are also obsessive about neatness, order and appearance. Deface a beloved building and your piece of art will be instantly despised. And washed off shortly thereafter. Even a good piece of graffiti doesn’t have much of a shelf life in Riga.

So when Riga graffiti artists want to see their masterpieces last a while they stick to back alleys, abandoned buildings and electrical boxes that no one cares about.  Their work does stand out better, and in some cases (I know of one stunning series of portraits under a railroad viaduct) it can last for years. You’ll never get that kind of long term exposure in Riga’s most popular galleries.

One very creative (and so far tolerated) example of Riga street art is the work of Riga’s  ‘serial stenciler’. He spray paints images, usually faces,  through a pre-cut stencil in selective places around town. His most famous ‘exhibit’ is a figure of the legendary 12th century Latvian warrior folk hero ‘Lacplesis’ (Bearslayer). Using only buildings on Riga’s Lāčcplēsis street as his urban canvas, he strategically spaced a series of ‘walking Lāčplēsis’ figures along the entire length of the street. Residents call his work. ‘Lāčplēsis walks Lāčplēsis’.

Of course, not all Riga graffiti is clever or even an attempt at art. Most of the graffiti you do find in the dark corners consists of one-word curses, profanities and expletives, and almost always in Russian.. Although the city is home to nearly equal numbers of Latvian and Russians, you rarely see vulgarities in Latvian. However, independence, the internet, EU and MTV are bringing changes here as well. English is rapidly becoming the new lingua franca of  phone booth poets.

Perhaps the EU will try to adopt some directives to halt the plague of graffiti in the New Europe. NATO could brand it as a form of cultural urban terrorism and develop a strategic ‘Spray Wars’ defence programme.. But most cities appear to have given up battling the scourge of graffiti. Or are simply losing it. Some, like New York, have embraced it (if you can’t stop it, sponsor it) and even tried to turn it into a tourist attraction .

But in Riga, the residents and graffiti artists have struck a happy balance. As Latvia joins the EU, it enters with the distinction of being the country with the least amount of graffiti per square metre of any country in Europe.  I just hope the street kids in the rest of Europe don’t read this article.

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